Isotopes Reveal Sources of Ancient Timbers

By Perkins, S. | Science News, September 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

Isotopes Reveal Sources of Ancient Timbers


Perkins, S., Science News


Analysis of some of the architectural timbers in ancient dwellings of the American Southwest has shown from which distant forests the massive logs came. This information could shed new light on trade relationships of one of the most complex societies in pre-Columbian North America.

Between A.D. 900 and 1150, Chaco Canyon was a thriving cultural center for the Anasazi. During that period, residents in what would later become northwestern New Mexico used hand-hewn sandstone and more than 200,000 logs to construct a dozen large, multiroom dwellings. Now, these so-called great houses sit abandoned amid an arid, treeless landscape, says Nathan B. English, a geochemist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Chaco Anasazi culture collapsed during a regional drought that lasted 50 years.

Where the Chaco Anasazi builders obtained their large timbers, which they used mostly as roof beams, has been a mystery, says English. On average, the timbers are straight logs about 5 meters long and 22 centimeters in diameter, and they weigh about 275 kilograms. They don't show any external damage that would indicate they were dragged, rolled, or floated to the construction site. That means that the loggers lifted and carried the timbers--a substantial investment of effort, English notes.

Today, the nearest stands of suitable trees are found more than 80 km from the canyon, in the upper elevations of three mountain ranges--the Chuskas to the west, the San Mateos to the south, and the San Pedros to the east. Other groups of researchers had previously tried to identify specific sources of the timbers by matching the proportions of their trace elements to those in soils in the mountain ranges. These efforts failed because the overall soil chemistries are too similar.

In the new research, English and his colleagues turned to the analysis of a single element, strontium. They found that samples of living trees in the three different mountain ranges exhibit distinct ratios of two strontium isotopes. …

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Isotopes Reveal Sources of Ancient Timbers
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